There are still a few things to resolve on birds of prey and their conservation. But, I feel that, thanks to yesterday's announcement from the Minister, I can move on from buzzards and talk about something else. That is a good thing.
Today I am helping celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RSPBs fantastic Coombes Valley reserve in Staffordshire, which is a delightful oak woodland perfectly set up for enjoying our returning woodland migrants. This feels like a good opportunity to revisit another hot issue with the public - forests.
Woodland at Coombes Valley RSPB reserve. Staffords. Copyright: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
At the start of last year, forests, or more specifically public forests, were on everyone’s lips following Defra’s consultation about their future. I struggle to think of any other environmental issue that has prompted over half a million people to sign a petition and others to burn an effigy of Big Ben in the Forest of Dean, although perhaps buzzardgate was heading that way. I wonder if David Cameron would consider this as “big society” in action?
The public reared up and told the government to back off, which is exactly what it did after just 3 weeks, with the abandonment of the consultation. I think this sums up just how important woods and forests are to everyone. Nevertheless, we are not out of the woods yet – excuse the pun.
Caroline Spelman subsequently set up an independent panel of experts to advise her on the future of forestry commission, the public forest estate and forestry policy in England. This is no longer just about the important 18% of public woods and forests, but also the other 82% in other ownerships. This Panel includes my boss, Mike Clarke, in an independent capacity, and they aim to report on 4th July. It is a huge job, and we await with interest their findings.
Is this just about who owns them? For some people, yes - but for us it is also about much more than that. When you take a closer look at our woods and forests, regardless of who owns them, it is clear that simply fighting for status quo will cause us to lose our woodlands in a very different way. Lesser spotted woodpeckers – common when I was young - but we have since lost three out of four pairs and they are now cripplingly rare. Woodland wildlife is not in a good way, with 1 in 6 woodland flowers threatened with extinction, a 56% decline in woodland butterflies, the loss of 9 out of 10 pairs of willow tit, 78% of lesser redpoll, the list goes on and on......
What is the problem?Contrary to popular belief, this is not a problem that will be solved by planting more trees. Although woodland expansion does have an important role to play, and we are fully behind it, the evidence points to another problem. The evidence is telling us that the condition of existing woods is where the greatest problem for much of our threatened wildlife lies. For centuries we have used woods for food, shelter and warmth. However, as this woodland management culture has declined, so have the varied woodland structures that wildlife need.
What do we want? The RSPB’s vision is for England’s woodland to be a haven for wildlife, whilst helping meet the challenge of climate change, be economically productive, and available for people to explore and enjoy.
A future where:
What do others think?The eyes of the nation, including ours, will be then be on the Government’s next move. A group that is also paying close attention is Our Forests who are an informal group of individuals with a shared set of core principles on the future of forestry. They have produced their own vision for the future of England’s woods and forests, which you can read here. I have and it is rather good.
Our views have much in common with this vision. For example, we both want increases in sustainable woodland management, the restoration of wildlife habitats damaged by plantation forestry, and increased woodland expansion. Although our emphasis on the latter would be further towards that of quality rather than quantity, as we are still fighting mistakes of past planting drives. Although we have slightly different rationale, we both agree that status quo is not the way forward and something new, building on best bits of the old is needed to realise the fuller value of woods and forests for the nation.
Another excellent vision is from Plantlife, which you can see here.
Most importantly of all, what do you think?
Please do share your thoughts below. You can also submit your views direct to Our Forests’ on their vision here.
We have just heard that the Richard Benyon - the Wildlife Minister - has decided to drop proposals to licence the destruction of buzzard nests and to bring adult buzzards into captivity around shooting estates.
This is what the Minister has said:
"In the light of the public concerns expressed in recent days, I have decided to look at developing new research proposals on buzzards.
"The success of conservation measures has seen large increases in the numbers of buzzards and other birds of prey over the last two decades. As Minister for Wildlife I celebrate that and since 2010 we have championed many new measures to benefit wildlife across England – set out in our England Biodiversity Strategy.
"At the same time it is right that we make decisions on the basis of sound evidence and we do need to understand better the whole relationship between raptors, game birds and other livestock. I will collaborate with all the organisations that have an interest in this issue and will bring forward new proposals.”
We’re pleased the minister has listened to people’s concerns and acted in the public interest by cancelling this project. This is a strong decision, reflecting the nation’s desire to see Government protecting precious wildlife.
I would like to thank all of you that made your concerns known to your MP and to Defra.
It is clear that large swathes of the public celebrate the recovery of the buzzard after many decades of persecution. We don’t want our taxes being spent on removing buzzards or destroying their nests and we shall continue to make the case to government that no bird of prey should be killed in the name of sport.
As I have written in previous blogs, we don’t want anything to distract Defra from the pressing task of saving our threatened wildlife. It should be putting its limited resources into areas such as preventing the extinction of hen harriers in England.
...the hawkEffortlessly at height hangs his still eye.His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges.
A short exert from Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Hawk in the Rain’, but care to guess which species he was describing? Well you wont be helped by the fact Ted describes a hawk – its actually a falcon. Ted was clearly a better poet than he was a taxonomist!
The bird he was describing was one of our most familiar birds of prey, the kestrel. And this is another bird of prey in real trouble.
May of you will have seen the classic film Kes where a young boy raises a kestrel chick as an escape from his apparently grim up bringing. Now I could comment on the fact that taking a kestrel chick from a nest is illegal and could have landed young Billy in jail, but I think that would be rather missing the point of what is a great story of hope and man’s connection with nature.
Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
Kestrels have always been that way. A symbol of freedom and escape as they hang effortlessly in the air, and they will be familiar to just about all of as a common sight over our motorways and roadside verges. It's one of the few birds that my kids can identify. But it seems that they aren’t quite as familiar as they used to be. The latest Breeding Bird Survey data shows a significant decline of 28% in the UK since 1995, with an even steeper decline of 58% in Scotland. It looks like something is up for Kes.
For many birds of prey, like the hen harrier, we know only too well what problems they face, but for the kestrel its a bit of a mystery. We really don’t know what’s causing these declines and until we find that out, it's difficult to do anything to reverse the declines. So this year we’re starting a new research project to look at possible causes of kestrel decline to give us a better idea of what we need to do.
It just goes to show, birds of prey are always going to be vulnerable. Even the ones we think of as common can suddenly start to disappear if we turn our back momentarily. I was interested, and concerned, to see that our kestrel’s American cousin is also apparently crashing, down 47% in the last 45 years. Again, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to that most basic question, why?
Hopefully the research we’re starting this year will give us the answers we need to begin to reverse the kestrel’s decline.
When it comes to Defra's research budget, this seems as good a subject as any to invest some spare cash.
We’re still fortunate to be able to see kestrels fairly regularly, but perhaps just that bit less regularly than a few years ago. Kestrels are certainly not yet on the brink, but conservation is as much about preventing species getting to the brink as it is saving those on the edge. Kestrels, as a bird of prey, will always be vulnerable and we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball (as I told my boy last night on the tennis courts). After all, it would be a modern tragedy if the kestrel’s story had the same tear jerking ending as in Kes.
Let’s find out what we need to, to keep this symbol of hope a common sight in our skies!
Have you noticed fewer kestrels on your travels? What do you think could be causing the declines?
It would be great to hear your views.
If you tuned into Simon Mayo's radio 2 drivetime show yesterday afternoon, you may have heard a little homage to the short-haired bumblebee reintroduction (partnership) project which was launched yesterday.
Every day Simon (I have been listening to him for so long, I feel like I know him personally) asks for requests related to a particular theme. Yesterday, in honour of the bumblebee reintroduction, he was asking for requests for songs with a bee theme. This included the "Buzz buzz-a-diddle-it" by Matchbox. I think it is time to listen again to hear the other selections.
Reintroductions are always a last resort - the last tool conservationists pull out of their toolbox. But when they work, as I am sure this one will, they give great hope to those who believe we can restore lost biodiversity to our landscapes. Ambition to say that we can, and great expertise to show that it's possible.
As the Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon MP, said, "bringing back this species of bumblebee after it's been absent from the UK for 12 years is wonderful news. I hope it will thrive and in time, spread to new areas."
Much to my disappointment, I was unable to attend yesterday's launch, but I do plan to visit Dungeness soon to get an update on progress.
We need a lot more of these initiatives to meet the 2020 Biodiversity target. And we also need to avert extinction where we can by investing in costed comprehensive species recovery plans (eg for hen harriers) before it's too late. The last thing we want is to be distracted by wrong-headed research projects designed to prevent protected native species eating non-native species (eg buzzards on pheasants).
For the latest on buzzards, do read a guest blog here from Robin Prytherch who has been studying this species for over 30 years or read this rather plain-speaking leading article here from the Independent published today.
Here's hoping the u-turn on the pasty tax and caravan tax is swiftly followed by the scrapping of the buzzard research project.
Which song would you choose to celebrate the return of the short-haired bumblebee? Which species would you most like to see return to our countryside? And have you written to your MP yet about the buzzard research?
It would be great to hear your views.
Here are two bits of unfinished business, but first some closure...
I have to admit to a schoolboy error. Take the first 5k carefully and then push on if you have any energy left. And, if it is hot, make sure you conserve even more energy. Well it was hot and I was wearing shorts, so I was bound to get a little overexcited and pay the penalty.
And that's exactly what happened yesterday when I ran the London Bupa 10K..
22.30 for the first 5k (and on track for my 45 minute target time) and 24.34 for the second 5k. The result: 47.04 and a ten pound penalty for me to pay the RSPB. But the rather lovely news is that my Godson Eli (who predicted 47.02) wins the prize! And I've raised a bit of cash for our work in the Eastern region. So I am happy with that result. Many thanks to all of you that sponsored me. I promise not to do it again.
If you get a moment, do take a look at two pieces in yesterday's Observer:
1. How EU farming policies lead to a collapse in Europe's bird population: New research from by the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme shows that the chances of encountering any one of the 36 species of farmland birds in Europe – species that include the lapwing, the skylark and the meadow pipit – are now stunningly low. Devastating declines in their numbers have seen overall populations drop from 600 million to 300 million between 1980 and 2009, the study has discovered. This dramatic decline represents a 50% reduction and is blamed on major changes in farming policies enforced by the EU over the last 30 years. The survey, carried out , also found that Britain has been one of the nations worst affected by losses to its farmland bird populations. The RSPB's Head of Monitoring, Richard Gregory (who chairs the Scheme and is an occasional guest blogger on this site), described the results as shocking "We had got used to noting a loss of a few per cent in numbers of various species over one or two years. It was only when we added up numbers of all the different farmland bird species for each year since 1980, when we started keeping records, that we found their overall population has dropped from 600 million to 300 million, which is a calamitous loss. We have been sleepwalking into a disaster."
But note my other colleague, Jenna Hegarty's comment, "The decline of farmland birds across Europe has been one of our greatest wildlife tragedies but it is important to remember they have been driven by farming policy rather than farmers themselves. We work with thousands of farmers across the UK who are striving to put wildlife back on the land, but farmers cannot do this without significantly increased funding for more environmentally friendly measures."
2. Silent Spring 50th anniversary: to coincide with the publication of Conor Jamieson's new book, Silent Spring Revisited, the Observer includes a little retrospective about Rachel Carson and asks Conor, Jonathan Porrit and me for our take on the implications of Rachel Carson's seminal work. Arguably, Silent Spring was the catalyst for the modern environment movement. But despite greater awareness, greater political profile, we have yet to find a way to decouple economic growth from environmental harm.
I continue to receive supporting emails from those that remain outraged by Defra's decision to spend close to £400,000 of taxpayers’ money on a trial in England to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults. And there was also more media comment from Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times and from Stuart Winter in the Sunday Express.
I look forward to whatever this week may bring.